Raiders free agency primer: How will McKenzie, Gruden operate?


ALAMEDA — There remains an air of mystery under general manager Reggie McKenzie as the Raiders enter free agency.

Once Sebastian Janikowski and Jon Condo are officially free agents — and both have been told they won’t be back — every player on the roster was added since McKenzie came aboard in 2012.

McKenzie was clearly the man with the plan when he took over, and through 2014 when the coaches were Dennis Allen and interim chief Tony Sparano.

When Jack Del Rio arrived, it was clear he had more influence when it came to personnel decisions than his predecessors, although there was never any hard evidence that McKenzie had given up the final say.

Jon Gruden, it can be assumed, has more power than Del Rio ever did, and by virtue of a 10-year contract, will have the last word when it comes to assembling a roster. Both McKenzie and Gruden have deftly avoided the “final say” questions, insisting they will work together.

When agent-led negotiations can officially begin Monday, followed by the start of free agency on Wednesday, it remains to be seen whether Gruden or McKenzie will take the lead in bringing in new talent.

McKenzie, even with a Green Bay background that has little use for free agency, has nonetheless taken some bold swings (Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson, Michael Crabtree) as well as some big misses (LaMarr Woodley, Nate Allen, Curtis Lofton).

Gruden’s going to have his own ideas, and he has remained connected to the NFL through the last nine years as a broadcaster. Chances are he’ll be more insistent when it comes to free agency than with the draft, where McKenzie and his scouts have been working for months at setting a board.

It’s considered mostly a down year when it comes to free agents, but the Raiders, with approximately $15.8 million in cap space pending releases and restructures, have the room to do some shopping.

A look at some positions of need and where the Raiders might be headed:

Cornerback: If the Raiders are looking to spend big, Trumaine Johnson (Rams) would be the prize. He’s already been linked to both the Raiders and 49ers. In theory, he would be plugged in to the starting lineup alongside second-year corner Gareon Conley. Sean Smith, due $8.25 million, will likely be released or take sizeable pay cut. The Raiders top corner a year ago TJ Carrie, may be looking to maximize his income. Other possibilities include Malcolm Butler (Patriots), Patrick Robinson (Eagles) and Bashaud Breeland (Washington). Richard Sherman (Seahawks) will be an intriguing entry to the open market — but a torn Achilles’ at age 29 bears medical scrutiny.

Defensive line: Plenty of draftniks were disappointed when McKenzie snagged DJ Hayden at No. 12 overall in 2013 and passed on Utah’s Star Lotulelei. Lotulelei is now on the market as a free agent after five years in Carolina, although his production dipped last season. Dontari Poe dropped some weight and played well in Atlanta a year ago, and the Raiders remember him from his days in Kansas City. The Jets’ Sheldon Richadson has character concerns. If defensive end Denico Autry and defensive tackle Justin Ellis hit the open market, the Raiders may find Autry is commanding more than they’re willing to pay. Ellis, who had his best season in 2017, is a candidate to return.

Linebacker: A year ago, the Raiders had Zach Brown in for a visit and the former Bills linebacker left without what he considered a legitimate offer. Brown was productive in Washington on a one-year deal under Gruden’s brother Jay. NaVorro Bowman, who lives in the Bay Area and has young children, sounded as if he preferred to remain in Oakland after 10 solid games as starting middle linebacker and defensive Paul Guenther seemed excited about coaching him. It all depends on the kind of money Bowman will command going into his ninth season. Starting strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin came on strong last year and finished with eight sacks, the most since his rookie season. He’s due $8 million this year and may need to restructure or take less to return for another season.

Wide receiver: Drops galore the past two seasons means this unit could be in for a shakeup. Amari Cooper will be the centerpiece. He may nor may not be flanked by Michael Crabtree, whose play fell off suddenly after the midseason point last year and is due $7 million. Slot receiver Seth Roberts got a contract extension a year ago that may keep him around, but Gruden is going to expect much more . Options include Allen Robinson (Jaguars), who is coming off a ACL injury but has experience with coordinator Greg Olson, as well as Sammy Watkins (Rams), Paul Richardson (Seahawks) and Danny Amendola (Patriots).

Running back: Gruden and McKenzie both say that Marshawn Lynch, due a $1 million bonus on March 16 and $6 million overall, is “part of the plan. “It’s not known whether paying him $6 million is also part of the plan, or whether Lynch would take less. Since Gruden is on record calling Lynch a “feature back,” it’s going to make cutting his salary difficult. If Lynch walks, the Raiders will need a lead-back type to pair with Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington. Those available include Carlos Hyde (49ers), DeMarco Murray (Titans), Isaiah Crowell (Browns) and LeGarrette Blount (Eagles). Doug Martin (Bucs) once gashed the Raiders for 251 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie in 2012.

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